Do you ever wonder if the children of Israel – and I mean the ones who wandered in the desert till their moms, dads, grandmas, uncles, and older siblings died – for 40 years… Do you ever wonder if those children of Israel – who should have got into Canaan as babies and grown up splashing in pools of milk and honey, but instead got to be desert-shepherds… Do you think they ever frowned out a mumbly and disgusted, “How did we get here?” I tell you what, if I were among them I probably would have had a few choice words to say to that dying off generation…
Because, what a tragedy! Israel, by God’s gracious hand, had been brought up out of Egypt and was finally at the gates of the land into which God had promised to settle them. Time for some OT Ghost Recon… send the spies in, check out the land, etc. And they did – and they found as they said, “[The land] does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.” Grape clusters so big they two guys had to carry them on a pole between them, pomegranates, you-name-it… “But…” they said… But there are nasty people living there, big people, fierce people… and, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are…” And that bad report boiled over into a night of weeping and despair and at dawn rebellion… and then, when the Lord descended in pillar of fire among them, it was all righteous judgment, over 40 years, fulfilled in excruciating and deadly wandering.
Wandering is sometimes good. Most often, though, we want to know where we’re going and where we are. That’s what the developers of a utility called What3Words wanted. What is it? They say, “We divided the world into 3 metre squares and gave each square a unique combination of three words. It’s the easiest way to find and share exact locations.” And they mean like you could tell someone to meet you by the double doors by our office and use this address instead: rally.rests.marker. And, through their app (or future integrations of their system) someone could meet you right there. That may not be super-functional at the moment, but in a world of growing and ever-more accurate GPS – they plan to implement it for package deliveries, meetups, shipping container locations – you name it. Whether it happens or not, that’s a unique way to orient yourself – What3Words…
After a fashion, that’s what we’re doing in these exile moments in Advent. We’re orienting ourselves on the spiritual map. If I had to map out where Israel was at – to say What3Words are their spiritual address – I’d call it: Doubt . Consequence . Promise… Start from the end. God said. “I will do to you the very thing I heard you say…” and worse: “[You will] know what it is like to have me against you.” God would act against them and be against them. He promised. And he laid out the consequence. They’d wander in the wilderness till every last one of them over 20 was dead – “[f]or forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins.” All because of doubt. That was their trouble, wasn’t it? It wasn’t really that the people of the land were big or fierce. Caleb said it in v.30, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” Of course, our reading skipped over the most specific reason for Caleb’s “we can do it” confidence. In ch.14v.9: “[Don’t rebel! Don’t be afraid!]…the Lord is with us.” And the Lord affirmed that and diagnosed the problem in 14:11, “How long will [these people] refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?”
It’s good to stop here at this spiritual overlook in Numbers and see the place where Israel is. Not a place we want to be, but one we know. I like the three word address idea because you likely will never be geographically wandering in the Wilderness of Zin south of Canaan. You’re never going to contend with Anakim and Nephilim. But you do know doubt. Which comes to you and me just like it did for Israel – by way of fear.
When you face the giants and seemingly insurmountable “conquer this land” sort of things… You know, like actually dealing well and kindly with one another in your relationships, or being an emotionally responsible husband or a caring wife. Or like taking responsibility for your life and its direction – do your work, avoid temptations, follow God’s pathways. Or like the tragic moments that throw everything off course – death, cancer, betrayal. When you face these, they can sometimes tower over your life like menacing giants; they can stretch out before you, problems so vast you don’t know how you’ll get around them. Fear isn’t always bad. There are legit things to be afraid of. There’s stuff that frightens and makes our hearts race. But fear is bad when it overpowers our perspective. When it leads us to disbelieve and doubt that the Lord is with us.
Israel had every reason – every visible mighty blessed reason to trust God… But how many are the promises he’s made to us? “I am with you always to the very end of the age…” (Mt 28:20) – he means to say, no matter where you are or when you live, he’s there with you. “Don’t be afraid of what to say, I’ll give you the words…” (Mt 10:19) – he means to say, he’ll fill you up with what you need to witness to his love. “Nothing can separate us from God’s love.” – he means not a thing in the world. And “If God’s for us, nobody can really stand against us…” (Ro 8) – I don’t care how smart they are or fierce or what terrible things they promise. But that blessing can turn if, recognizing these blessings of God, we meet the enemy forces of life and, like Israel of old, we say, “Yes, the blessings are great but…” But the enemies are so strong and the problems are so vast… we can’t do it and maybe God’s actually misled us all along or he’s not here at all… And we better find our own way to more prosperous places.
Sometimes I’m glad I didn’t live in Israel’s day, when the Lord would come down in visible, fiery, immediate judgment. But still my own disbelief and doubt can lead to the same kind of promised consequence – and, finally, even real separation from God’s blessings. In this life by unbelief… but also in the next one where the wandering and the separation and the “God’s against me” won’t be 40 days or even 40 years but forever…
Tonight, let’s survey that place. Let’s repent with Israel and turn away from fear that conquers our hearts into doubt… You know, Israel could have been in the same geographical location but a totally different place back then. And, I would argue, no matter where we are, our spiritual location is this one. What3Words? How about Word . Faith . Rest. I mean a word like how Moses described the Lord in some of the verses our reading skipped. Moses implored,
“Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion…In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people…” The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.”
A God slow to anger – for when we are tempted and weak; A God abounding in love – to carry us along; A God forgiving all our fears and sins – whatever we have done. What a word!
That letter to the Hebrews, our 2nd reading, calls people like us in that kind of word to put our faith. It presents to people like us the thing people of God in any age put their trust in: that the Lord is with us. And even better than of old: not with us in fearful fire and immediate judgment but in one who is “[able] to sympathize with our weaknesses…one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.” We have a Lord who put himself among us by walking the very paths you do and knowing the scary things you know and never ever doubting… We have a Lord with us, even to face a darkness that exiled him from his own Father, a darkness that would terrify the strongest of us… A Lord who did not flinch in fear but remained steadfast even till he died. When Jesus died on his cross, God’s promised nature of forgiveness and love was fulfilled – all sins paid.
Having Jesus as that kind of word in whom you can put your faith – your spiritual location is rest. Like how, in the midst of our struggles and temptations and even sins, we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Mercy from above and love overflowing whenever we need it. What a peace-giving thought. For now and later… God’s said, “the promise of entering [God’s] rest still stands” for you. In Advent, we’re doing a somewhat 40 days of preparation. Of looking ahead to what’s coming – yes, Christmas – but through Christmas even to THE END. And we’re not afraid. We’re confident to walk through this land, whatever we face, because Jesus has walked with us and God’s promises accompany us, and when that END comes we’re going walk into the paradise he’s promised. A rest that will not end.
If you wanted to describe where we are, and asked “What words?” It’s hard to pick just three, I think… Why not use them all? We have
the PROMISE of Jesus’ presence and work for us,
that brings the CONSEQUENCE of confidently living
without any DOUBT.
Because God’s WORD to us is forgiveness and mercy and peace
in Jesus in whom we put our FAITH. So that, whatever we face,
our hearts REST in him.
That’s our spiritual location – so many are the blessings and so confident our position as the people of God – that after all this time, maybe Joshua and Caleb said it best: “Don’t be afraid…the Lord is with us!”